Leadership at the Harrisburg Bureau of Fire can tell their efforts to improve communication to members through digital dashboards are paying off.

“We were always trying to do a better job of communication,” says Senior Deputy Fire Chief Michael E. Souder. Now, firefighters always know their expectations and are included in what’s going on day to day, he says.

The Harrisburg Bureau of Fire is a department of 90 people serving a city of about 50,000. While it’s small, the city is also the capital of one of the most highly populated states in the U.S. and can swell to as high as 125,000 people when the state legislature is in session.

The fire department operates out of three stations and a management headquarters, all outfitted with Digital Dashboards by First Arriving. The two screens in each station show some data unique to each location, as well as data that appears department-wide. Communication across stations is especially important given that members sometimes serve at more than one location. “We’re so close-knit that it’s nice to know everything that’s going on everywhere,” Souder says.

The department introduced the dashboard system in 2020 after hearing about it from members and seeing it at a pre-pandemic International Association of Fire Chiefs conference. After all their research, however, the root of their decision came down to their goal of better serving their members.

“This is a great communication tool because let’s be honest, everybody has a thousand things they’re trying to accomplish,” he says. While leadership doesn’t have time to reach out to each member every day, the dashboards do just that.

“It’s one message, a consistent message, and First Arriving brings a lot of things to the table,” Souder says.

Now staff can see at a glance what matters to them, such as who is coming in to relieve them or what new equipment has been purchased. “These are things that make everyone feel part of the process, and I think that’s the key, here,” Souder says.

He adds that he can tell the department’s messages are getting through based on what members are talking about. “Information is getting out. The way I know that is by what they complain about,” Souder jokes. In seriousness, he’s been excited to see his staff’s suggestions for dashboard announcements and updates, comments on what they’re seeing, and ideas to improve his future slides.

“Those are my gauges that our officers and firefighters are looking at the boards,” he says. “That is my data back–word of mouth and interaction.”

Their main consideration in choosing First Arriving over other providers, Souder says, was the number of software products that it’s compatible with, including Emergency Reporting and PSTrax. They had recently selected several new software products before choosing a dashboard provider. “And then First Arriving came along and really ties them all together, because it takes the data from all the different software that we’re putting in, and gives you real-time results,” he says.

First Arriving was also offering more of what Harrisburg’s fire chiefs wanted for their dashboards, Souder says: user-friendliness that prioritizes features for the members on the street. The critical information they chose to push out includes rosters, street closures, real-time traffic data, weather, and emergency calls.

They also show real-time data for the local river including its level, speed, and prediction for where it’s going to go. “We need to know that because it’s a big part of what we do here,” Souder says. “We have a lot of boaters and fisherman on the river. So that’s huge.”

The department also innovated a way to use slides as a training supplement by running a feature called Know Your Equipment. “It highlights a new piece of equipment that we’ve put on, or something that maybe you haven’t used in a while, and it just gets everybody to refresh,” Souder says. It’s more effective than a one-time announcement because he uses the slides to include a photo and explanation, and the rotation on the screen ensures members will see it numerous times.

The department also expects to add more integrations in the future. Staff have been excited to see First Arriving adding more options, such as the new integration for Zoom meetings, Souder says. “We’re learning more every day, and I don’t think we’ve tested the product for everything it has yet,” he adds.

The implementation of the product has been smooth, with easy communication over the helpline to answer questions, Souder says.

The reception by members has likewise gone well. “We have a younger department due to a lot of transitions in recent years,” he notes. “This kind of technology is how they do business. They’re visual, they love having everything at their fingertips—instant data and instant feedback—and that’s exactly what they’re getting here. And we’ve heard nothing but good stuff.”

Their goal going forward is to explore the product further and make sure they’re utilizing everything they can, Souder says. “We love the product, and we’re excited about where it’s going to take us.”

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